WORLD WAR II COMBAT: D-DAY
Samuel Warren Cochran
Installed as a webpage on Shade Tree Physics on 11 Sep 2016.
After the defeat of Rommel in North Africa and the Allies' invasion of italy, it was generally believed that the invasion of the European Continent from the north--through Holland or France--was only a matter of time. However, we never talked much about it.
In the spring of 1944, a pattern to our nearly year-long bombing raids was starting to emerge. Whether striking targets in Belgium, France, or the Netherlands, we placed as much emphasis on making sure that we did not damage certain bridges, roads, railroads, or terminals as ensuring that other targets were rendered useless. "Aha," I reasoned, "General Eisenhower and his staff are developing invasion plans." I did not know how the 386th Bomb Group was going to fit in but was confident that we were included. By now, the possibility of an invasion was becoming more real, and we enjoyed speculating about the exact time and place.
Based on our bombing missions, I reasoned that the Allied Forces would invade the Continent on the west coast of France, somewhere between Calais and Le Havre. By the latter part of May, we believed that the invasion was imminent; and on one or two occasions, our bomb group was placed on alert. Leaves were cancelleed--hush, hush was everywhere--and we thought the next briefing would announce the invasion. But it never did.
Late in the afternoon on June 5, we heard that white and black zebra stripes, about 18 inches wide, had been painted on both wings of our airplanes, around the fuselage and on the tail. Wow, this was it! No one was allowed to leave the base, and we did not talk among ourselves--everything was conspicuously tranquil. We all knew what was about to happen, but we attempted to behave otherwise. Before dark, the crews scheduled for the next mission were posted and our crew's name was on the list. I was pleased.
About 2 on a 10-point scale, I knew this was going to be an historic mission; but about 8 on the scale, I was more concerned with the technical part of getting the mission completed successfully. By this time, I had flown more than 60 combat missions and, reduced to its simplest terms, was determined to treat this as just another mission.
At 2:00 a.m. on Tuesday, June 6, 1944, we assembled in the briefing room--it was raining. The operations officer called the roll--everyone was present. Col. Joe W. Kelly started the briefing with the statement, "Gentlemen, this is it!" I was determined to keep calm--and did--but I must tell you that a cold shiver ran up and down my spine. Colonel Kelly told us that earlier in the night 20,000 allied paratroopers had been dropped on the Continent near the French coast. And at this moment, heavy bombers were enroute to destroy targets in the invasion area. Except for the crisp voice of our commander, all was quiet in the briefing room; for the first time, I was aware of the drone of airplane engines overhead. I blocked out everything else and continued to listen carefully to the engines overhead. My mind was wanting me to conclude one thing, and my senses were telling me something else. I overruled my mind and went with my senses: These airplanes were flying more southerly than southeast! "Headed south!" I muttered, "Why, they must be bound for Normandy!" Had I missed my guess about the location of the invasion--or was this only a diversion?
I allowed my mind to return to the briefing; and in an instant, I knew I had not missed anything--Colonel Kelly was letting each word soak in. We learned that the "white and black D-Day zebra stripes" that had been painted on our bombers were for identification. Every Allied aircraft wore them. Invasion personnel knew that all airplanes without zebra stripes were enemies and should be destroyed on the spot. "Betrayed!" was my first thought. "My intensive training in aircraft identification had been telescoped into a five-second one-liner!"
Soon, I learned that I had missed my guess about the location of the invasion--it was to be in the Normandy area. I hoped that the German HIgh Command also had been fooled. We continued to learn about the grand scheme of the invasion: countries that would participate (Britain, Canada, and U.S. Forces) number of personnel involved, number of airplanes, and number of ships and boats. I was listening to every word but was unable to comprehend the magnitude of the operation. Above the sound of rain on the roof, I heard the constant roar of flying airplanes. We had not completed our invasion briefing and already thousands of soldiers and airmen were active. Where did we fit in?
D-Day, Page 2 of 2
The intelligence officer identified our target. We were to drop our bombs on Utah Beach, in the St. Martin de Varenville* area. But, what about timing? Then I heard that the 386th Bomb Group had been awarded the place of honor in the invasion--we would be the last to bomb before the ground troops stormed the beaches; however, my mind could not believe what my ears were hearing. My mind and my senses engaged in a tenacous battle. Then I started to reflect. *[St. Martin de Varreville.]
We all knew the 386th Bomb Group had the best bombing record of all Medium Bombardment Groups in the European Theatre of Operations (ETO); however, we never gave it much thought. We expected this of ourselves. Since our first mission, we often had been assigned the more difficult targets and ocasionally had been called upon to destroy a bridge or road after others had failed. Our bombing accuracy was a function of self-preservation--not a desire for glory. In our fondest dream, we had never sought this prestigious position in the D-Day armada. Early on, we learned that when we did not hit the target the first time, we would return the second time, or third. When a target was destroyed on the first attempt, the defenses usually were lighter than on a later attempt. Since the Germans were not capable of defending every target, they probably relied on our activity as a measure of importance. Our aim was to do it right the first time. But we did have a reputation, and it followed us. Things were beginning to make sense--but I paid a price. I started to shiver, but I never knew whether I was shivering because my clothes were damp, or because of our role in the invasion, or because my mind was active, making sense out of mysteries. Now I was beginning to understand why General Eisenhower had visited our bomb group a few months earlier.
Each B-26 carried 250-pound bombs. This size bomb would detonate land mines, knock out fortifications, and make craters to serve as foxholes. It was still dark and raining hard when we made our way to the airplanes; start-engine-time was 4:25. The weather was forecast to improve as we reached the invasion area--but that was trivial. No one ordered us to do so, but each aircrew member knew the mission would be flown as briefed--against all odds. The concept of dedication was viewed through different eyes.
We took off without incident, assembled our formation under the clouds, and headed south for Normandy. After departing the English coast, our weather started to clear; and when I was able to see the water, I could not believe my eyes: boats and ships covered the English Channel! My first thought was, "Why, there is no place to ditch an airplane!"
Timing was critical--to drop our bombs too early or too late would mean disaster. Then I came to myself. Timing, when bombing, was always critical. I remembered: I had resolved to fly this mission, using the same techniques as previous missions. We arrived at our initial point (IP) as briefed, made our bomb run in a easterly direction, flew below the clouds at 3,000 feet--the lowest altitude a bomb run had been made by a B-26 Marauder in more than a year--and dropped bombs as briefed, H-Hour minus 5 minutes. After we closed our bomb-bay doors, I looked to the left, and a couple of hundred yards away there they were: countless landing barges filled with soldiers poised to hit the beaches. It made no difference to me whether American, British, or Canadian soldiers were in the barges--all were my allies. I knew the enemy was to my right, but I never saw him. We were flying the cutting edge. For a moment I allowed my mind to wander: it dawned on me--I had no philosophical or theoretical basis to identify some of the strangers as friends and others as enemies. But I pulled my mind back and got busy with the task at hand--we had a mission to complete!
We encountered some flak and small-arms fire over enemy territory, but both were light; all the airplanes that we saw had zebra stripes. After dropping our bombs, we made a huge right turn, crossed the the Cherebourg Peninsula, and headed north for England. On the leg home, we flew near the beaches where we had bombed a few minutes earler; when I looked to my right, I saw hordes of soldiers coming ashore--I had a ringside seat for the invasion.